Sunday, December 2, 2012

I lost a war this week.

I lost a war this past week. My partner and I designed a PBL unit around the driving question "...cuz MD?" for a unit on the Spanish American War. We plan on having students each tell small parts of the war by creating short Common Craft style videos. At first students were hooked trying to figure out what "MD" was. But after they did our project seemed "destined" to failure.

We have found that when students have a good basic background on a topic such as WWII or 9/11 that they do a good job on inquiry. When the topic is more difficult students tend to focus on basic "what" questions instead of deeper "how" or "why." On top of that they can not even ask good "what" questions unless we lead them to the topics. This is logical when they lack background knowledge, so we end up creating fairly structured activities to "guide" them. In the past if we do not do this they miss many important concepts on their own.

So this past week we created a number of structured assignments to "help" students. We created an activity where they compared Howard Zinn's description of the Spanish American War with a more traditional approach from the Library of Congress. They were supposed to make a Venn Diagram comparing the similarities and differences of the texts. Students struggled with the reading level and with how Zinn's writing was not structured like a normal textbook. They had not read Zinn before and could not recognize the "big story" that he was telling of the struggle of women, labor, and minorities as a counter to big business and government. This was the first time we have asked them to compare texts like this. Our selections were too long, too unfamiliar, and the task was too unstructured for the first time attempting it.

The next day we had students analyze the poem "White Man's Burden" (not an easy read). Again this was the first time that we have looked at poetry this year and we mostly asked them to do it on their own. Students were not curious or engaged. They were bored. We were looking at primary sources that were not easy reads and students gave up because they had no buy in in the project. They called us out on it on Friday. (The irony was I was proudly wearing my new shirt for the first time.) They called it irrelevant,  "busy work," and "worksheets." They called it "vomiting up information." They said they saw no point in what we were doing. They were struggling and frustrated. It hurt because it was true.

One student reminded me of promises I had made in the past not to teach like this and gave examples of better learning that we had done in the past. Once students find their voice you can't take it away from them. I listened and did not immediately respond. That alone is really difficult for me. I processed and talked to my partner. We recognized mistakes we made in not showing students the relationship between the assignments and the essential questions. We apologized and explained the connections to the class. We went through the essential questions with the class and checked off the ones that we had addressed. It was also clear that students have a good understanding of the key concept of Manifest Destiny after the week's activities.

We communicated the objectives more clearly to them and it ended on a good note. Students left feeling less frustrated. Problem solved.

But it hasn't really resolved for me. I was boring. I sucked. I have to do better. This represents my deepest struggle with teaching to the standards. I am not happy with this project and never have been. I am teaching it because I have to for the standards. I recognize the lack of relevance to students but was unable to come up with a way to make it matter to them. We have no authentic audience for the videos and choose them because we thought they would be fun for the students around this boring topic to them.

 This tension between what I have to teach and what students want to learn has been the biggest internal struggle for me this year. To be continued...


  1. I'm certain your students learn from your willingness to listen and call an audible based on student voices! I've been a part of projects as well where it seemed like we were following the ol' "spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down" approach. I tried to re-work these projects but definitely still struggled! Keep fighting the good fight!

  2. I think it is important to understand that your openness in your frustrations was very important to the process. Because of this you have given your students a stronger feeling of being part of the process. Almost exactly a year ago I had a project that really sucked. We ended up not killing it until we came back from the Christmas break but on the first day back my co-teacher and I realized that it needed to die. And so when the students came in we explained that we were killing it but we asked for feedback on why they thought it sucked and what we should do if we wanted to do it this year. I have since moved on and so I don't have to do that project this year - and I'm glad! This was a great post and important for teachers to hear, when they are considering PBL.

  3. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said it lacked authenticity. I've been there and done that; believe me! What really helped me with teaching the wars was to move to a thematic approach. My essential question was, "how can we use lessons learned from past wars to create a plan for withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq?" There was a profound shift in the engagement as well as my own outlook on the content. It was an 8 week project that involved many facets and many different authentic audiences. --- Keep up the good reflection. @daylynn

  4. Great blog post. You articulated common frustrations among all teachers, especially great teachers. Your struggle is a sign you are one of the good ones! My first year of teaching someone once told me, "you'll have "A" days and "F" days, and sometimes you need an "F" day to keep you sharp".

  5. Thank you for your honesty and vulnerability. That's part of why I can trust you when you share your successes. I remember how honest you were with me about PBL when I picked your brain for a few hours this summer. You're a great man and a great teacher.

  6. Sometimes, students also need to suck it up and trust that what you are showing them is valuable even if they don't immediately see it. You say you have given students a voice in your class, maybe they also need to show you trust as well?

    I understand your frustration that they didn't arrive where you expected them too, but the truth is they had a hand in their own failure (which is a very valuable thing for them to understand as well.) Did they try to connect their assignments? Should you be able to expect them to start to do that without it being explicit after three months in your classroom? Are you enabling your students by not pushing them to struggle and find their own connections?

    When it comes down to it, it is their learning that is important. What are they learning from you, content or how to learn? Does the rebellion they showed you come because their expectations are to be fed, not to find their own food? Maybe your only real failure was your inability to recognize that their struggle has value and that the conversation should have been about them creating their own meanings and developing their won realizations. Just thinking out loud.

    1. Will,

      I am still thinking about this and your response. I definitely think that some of the students are looking for the easy way out and don't want to be challenged. But the biggest pushback was that we were providing too much structure and they just wanted to study on their own. They also wanted more simulations like we have done in the past. But I also think that the topic is just not interesting to them in the least.

      I also think that I could have structured some of the activities better and we did ask them to do some things that we had not asked before.

      I can't get past the fact that it feels like I am shoving this stuff at them because it is in the standards, rather than whether it is truly important.

    2. We are shoving stuff at them that makes no sense. They should be used to it by now though. I have a tough time doing that as well and have been thinking more and more about it. The thing is, sometimes we have to learn stuff we don't necessarily want to. We have to jump through hoops, play the game, just do it. Maybe we need to be more honest when that happens and then give them the choice to play the game or not...